Book Review: Growing up Russian

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Gary Shteyngart is one funny fellow. Readers of his previous books, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan,” and “Super Sad True Love Story,” will hear familiar notes while paging through “Little Failure,” his latest opus.

But unlike those novels, “Little Failure” is styled, with vast quantities of irony and self-deprecation, as a memoir. It is Mr. Shteyngart’s first nonfiction book. (“Little Failure” is the author’s translation of his mother’s Russian-American put-down of him, “failurchka”).

By Gary Shteyngart
Random House ($27),

Mr. Shteyngart, who immigrated to the United States from Leningrad with his parents and grandmother at age 7 in 1972, takes us on a rollicking tour of his life to date. Nothing is sacred, nothing beyond the pale.

We read about his oppression-filled family history and his own early childhood in the gray and severe Soviet Union. We read about his arrival in New York, by way of Vienna and Rome. We read about his fumbling efforts to assimilate into American life, and we read a lot about his parents and the love-hate relationship he enjoys with them.

Well, at any rate, we thoroughly enjoy it. Mr. Shteyngart struggles through Solomon Schechter School of Queens, gradually improving his English but never really fitting in among his classmates.

He spends a lot of time playing first generation video games on primitive computers with one or two friends and feasting on fatty foods at his grandmother’s apartment, somewhere deep in the heart of Queens.

Later, Mr. Shteyngart enrolls at Stuyvesant, the legendary public high school in Manhattan. He discovers a world unknown — brilliant students from all over the world, Ultimate Frisbee in Central Park, and, not least, drugs and alcohol. His adventures are just beginning.

He is admitted to Michigan but chooses Oberlin (“an academy for shy people in Ohio”) in order to follow a girlfriend. After arrival on campus, she promptly ditches him. Years of romantic disappointment, chemical experimentation and endemic frustration follow.

Degree in hand, Mr. Shteyngart returns to New York. There, he treats us to an ongoing series of misadventures, leavened throughout by uproarious, irreverent, and sometimes poignant encounters with his very devoted and very Russian parents.

No matter your background, you will chuckle, and sometimes laugh out loud, as you wend your way through this tale. It’s a tale of doubt, insecurity, angst, tension and hazy discovery. It’s a recipe for the reader’s enjoyment.

David Wecht is a judge on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Any views expressed herein are the author’s; they are not offered on behalf of the Superior Court.

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